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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 16:57 GMT
Russian ice maiden melts hearts
Stanislavsky corps de ballet
The Stanislavsky easily rivals the Bolshoi
By BBC News Online's Patrick Jackson

London's Royal Festival Hall has something very special to celebrate this festive season with the arrival of Moscow's Stanislavsky Ballet.

The virtuoso Russian company has not only made its British debut there but it performed a ballet choreographed by its own artistic director specifically for the hall 40 years ago.

Shrovetide carnival scene
The carnival masks echo Russian painted clay folk toys
On the opening night of The Snow Maiden, the Stanislavsky lived up to its reputation for flawless dance and human drama.

Even some hitches with the stage curtains - quite understandable since the company had had time for only one full dress rehearsal in London - could not wrong-foot the dancers.

Vladimir Bourmeister staged The Snow Maiden for the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet) back in 1961, making history as a Soviet choreographer working with a Western troupe.

His successor, Dmitry Bryantsev, has kept the piece - which to this day regularly sells out in Moscow - as vibrant as ever.

First love

The folk-tale plot is simple: The Snow Maiden, a winter spirit, falls in love with a human and perishes as her icy being melts in the warmth of feelings.

Natalia Ledovskaya as the Snow Maiden with Dmitry Zababurin as her suitor Mizgir
A tragic coup de foudre
Natalia Ledovskaya dances the part with perfect delicacy, whether resting along the outstretched arms of her lover Mizgir (the magnificent Dmitry Zababurin) like a feather boa or draped across his wrist like a funeral wreath.

Her spurned rival for Mizgir's affections, Kupava (Tatiana Tchernobrovkina), demonstrates a perfect plasticity, as if there is not a joint in her body.

Yet this production is no mere platform for technical brilliance - it is an aching story of nascent and broken loves which left viewers at the première in tears.

As in many great tragedies, there is much humour along the way, notably from Alexander Kopchinsky as Snegurochka's adoptive father, a tumbling, Chaplinesque figure.

Tatiana Tchernobrovkina as Kupava with Dmitry Zababurin as Mizgir
Kupava's thrilling early love scenes give way to bitter grief

The folk-tale costumes and Shrovetide carnival masks are exhilarating, letting fly colours around the frost-bound set like a painting by Kandinsky.

This magical spectacle is, of course, enclosed by the Royal Festival Hall itself with its excellent acoustics and generous seating plan.

The Stanislavsky has brought its orchestra along too, rendering Tchaikovsky's music in all its beauty.

This ballet may be little known in Britain but the Stanislavsky is not leaving before a run of a much more famous one - Swan Lake.

You can see that just after the New Year, but try to catch The Snow Maiden while you can - it is a long way to Moscow and the queues for tickets there can be just as bad!

The Snow Maiden is on at the Royal Festival Hall, London, until 2 January (excluding 24, 25 and 30 December).

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